So there he was, all by himself except for Swale, looking suddenly far older than his 70 years—a drawn, frail, ashen man standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs with the cameras snapping, the pale wind blowing and the crowds surging toward him, calling his name. Trainer Woody Stephens held the reins with his left hand and patted Swale's chocolate nose with his right. For a long time Stephens seemed to linger in the circle with the colt, holding on to that fleeting moment as if he never wanted it to pass.
It was late Saturday afternoon and Swale had just won the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. He'd snatched the lead going around the far turn, opened up two lengths at the top of the stretch and five by the time he got to midstretch, and then bounded home in a drive to win by 3¼ lengths over Coax Me Chad and 5¼ over At The Threshold. Swale paid his backers $8.80 to win as second choice in the 20-horse field. Althea, the California filly tepidly favored at 5-2, finished 19th, beaten by some 30 lengths.
This Derby victory was among the crowning moments of Stephens's 47-year career as a horse trainer, and in a sense the most dramatic of all, though he'd won the Derby with Cannonade in 1974. He could barely smile when it was all over, feeling as weak and ill as he did, but he waved his hand to those who shouted such things as "Swale carried the mail!" And "Great job, Woody!"
Stephens was still suffering from a bout with pneumonia, emphysema and exhaustion that had put him in a Louisville hospital from April 22 until the day before the race. When he walked into Swale's stall in the saddling paddock on Saturday, Stephens leaned back limply against a wall of the stall and simply watched as Mike Griffin, who was training Swale in Stephens's absence, hoisted on the saddle and cinched it up. Stephens was too tired to dress the colt himself. "This horse looks awful good," Woody said to Griffin as they shook hands. "Thank you." Griffin nodded. "He hasn't turned a hair," he said.
There were many such moments woven through this Kentucky Derby. Why, there was Swale's breeder and part owner, Seth Hancock, 34, the master of Claiborne Farm, striding into the pandemonium of the winner's circle ceremony amid the exultant embraces of the Hancock clan—41-year-old brother Arthur, the family maverick who co-owned and co-bred the 1982 Derby winner, Gato del Sol; sister Dell, 31; and their 69-year-old mother, Waddell, the widow of Bull Hancock. Bull built Claiborne into the breeding empire that exists today—the Paris, Ky. farm is among the finest thoroughbred nurseries in the world—and he wanted most of all to win the Derby, though he never did.
There was Laffit Pincay Jr., for years one of America's leading jockeys, who had ridden in 10 Derbys and finished second three times but never won. That fact had preyed on him. Bouncing into the winner's circle astride Swale, Pincay grinned madly and raised his fist—he'd finally done it, after all those years!—as if at last he'd thrown off the fear that had so haunted him, that he would retire having won every major American horse race, save the most important of all. There was Bill Shoemaker, one of Pincay's fastest friends, who had won three Derbys and finished ninth on Silent King in this one, embracing Pincay and then breaking into tears.
And oh, yes, there was Swale himself, the tough, game, hard-running son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, who ultimately had all the goods when he was asked for them, while his more famous stablemate didn't. Leaving his stall in Barn 41 to attend this dance, Swale walked past the alertly inquiring Devil's Bag, the $36 million colt who'd been the Derby favorite until he mysteriously went backward in his form and was withdrawn five days before the race. Swale was a sort of substitute taking over in the big game, but he looked the part of a first-stringer. His sleek bay coat seemed almost black in the gray afternoon light, and he carried his fine neck with a slight bow. The colt moved to the racetrack like a cat, almost pantherlike in the way he walked.
"All's Swale that ends Swale," said Griffin, toasting Dell Hancock with champagne in the Churchill Downs Directors Room after the race. So it ended for everyone closely connected with this colt in this strange, wide-open Kentucky Derby.
Swale's run to the head of the field began less than nine weeks ago, on March 3 at Hialeah, when a healthy but overworked Stephens saddled Devil's Bag for the Flamingo. The Bag had been last year's undefeated 2-year-old champion, and by all considered judgments was destined to be one of the greatest horses that ever lived. He did everything so easily. The gate opened and he set sail.
Swale had to work for a living. He won $491,951 in 1983, but he was far less brilliant than Devil's Bag; Swale ground out his victories in long, bitter stretch battles that took him and jockey Eddie Maple right down to the wire. Last summer he won the Futurity at Belmont by a dirty nose, came back to win the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland by a head, then finished his season by winning the Young America at the Meadowlands by another hairy whisker. The Bag was the celebrity; Swale was largely ignored.
All that changed after the Flamingo, when Devil's Bag, with Maple up, spit the bit coming off the turn for home and finished fourth, buried alive. Four days later Swale won the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream by eight, despite traveling wide. He finished third in the Fountain of Youth 10 days later, but he came back two weeks after that to win the Florida Derby by three-quarters of a length over Dr. Carter. Maple had ridden Swale in the Fountain of Youth, but he chose to ride Devil's Bag exclusively after that, so Pincay snatched Swale up for the Florida Derby. After he won that race, Pincay had the mount for good. "He's my Kentucky Derby horse," Pincay said.
At 37, Pincay had himself another chance to win a Derby. Fate hadn't been kind to him in Kentucky. In 1973 he turned for home on the lead with Sham—"I thought," he says," 'I'm going to win my first Kentucky Derby!' "—only to glance to his right and see the massed brown of Secretariat's neck craning on his outside. Sham ended up second. Six years later, Pincay turned for home on the lead with General Assembly, only to look over and see Spectacular Bid starting his run. Again Pincay finished second. The next year, on stretch-running Rumbo, he made a late move on Genuine Risk, but fell a length short. Second again. By 1983 Pincay had resigned himself to the fact that the Kentucky Derby wasn't for him. "It was very frustrating," he once said. "I was prepared to accept it. All my life I tried to win it and I never win it."
After winning the Florida Derby, Pincay figured he might be on the livest wire among the Derby horses, though Swale's dull second in the Lexington Stakes on a rain-slick racetrack at Keeneland on April 17 gave him pause to wonder. "I was afraid he got hurt in that race," Pincay says. "He felt funny to me."
Obviously, the colt couldn't handle the track. Neither could Woody, whose extraordinary stable of horses has won 15 stakes so far this year and has had him racing from track to track—from Florida to New York to Kentucky and back—to keep up. The furious pace finally caught up with Stephens and he checked into the hospital. Seth Hancock named Griffin, who had been in charge of yearlings at Claiborne Farm, to temporarily take over the training of Swale and the Bag.
The pressure on Griffin quickly intensified. The Bag won the Derby Trial, but unimpressively, and it was clear that the colt was facing a potentially humiliating defeat in the Derby. Prudently, his handlers decided to withdraw him and aim him for the Preakness Prep at Pimlico on May 12 and the Preakness on May 19. That left Maple without a mount, at least until he picked up the long shot At The Threshold during Derby week.
Chauffeured by his physician, Dr. David Richardson, a subdued and weakened Stephens three times left the hospital and visited the barn during Derby Week. One morning he rolled down his window to say hello to Jack Van Berg, the trainer of Derby candidate Gate Dancer. Van Berg offered his condolences regarding the Bag. "That colt just never found himself this spring," Stephens said.
But Swale had. "Swale likes this racetrack and he's ready," Griffin said on Derby eve. On the long walk from the barn to the paddock before the race, the crowds hollered at Swale, but he stayed calm. "That's just the way this colt is," Griffin said. "He's got a lot of class about him. This horse will run well today."
The strategy was simple. Swale had speed, but he didn't have to go to the lead, so the idea was to get him out of the gate and take aim on the leaders. "Lay close to the pace," Griffin told Pincay. "Don't let anybody steal it."
Griffin boosted Pincay aboard, and Stephens headed off slowly through the crowds to watch the race on television in the Directors Room. "If he breaks decent and gets into the first turn decent, fourth or fifth, I'll be in good shape," Stephens said. "I have a top rider on him. If he goes into the backstretch within striking distance, he'll be tough to beat."
Stephens had his way. Pincay rode the colt masterfully. Swale left the gate with a bounce, and he rushed with the leaders to the first turn, tucking in third behind the front-running Althea and Bear Hunt. Swale tracked them through the first half mile, Pincay sitting cool, and suddenly Bear Hunt had had enough and Swale set out to introduce himself to Althea. He chased her into the far turn like he was trying to get her phone number. He galloped up right alongside of her, as if to ask her point blank, "O.K., and what have you got?"
Althea had very little. Swale had her turned inside out before they reached the middle of the turn, and once he ditched her, he was home free. As Swale took the lead, Stephens said, "He'll win by five! They'll all back up."
Pincay knew he had a horse under him. "Passing the quarter pole, he felt very strong," Pincay said. "He was pricking his ears."
By then, Pincay had done his good work, and he was just along for the ride. He had two lengths on Fight Over turning for home, when the fight was over, and about all Pincay did from there was wave the stick in front of Swale's left eye to keep his mind on his work. "When I showed him the whip, he was really responding," he said. He finished the 10 furlongs in 2:02⅖ uninspired time compared to Secretariat's track record of 1:59⅖ but it was inspired enough to beat these horses.
As Swale's definitive victory was no surprise, so it led to no real surprises. Stephens had originally planned to have Swale pass up the Preakness and instead run Devil's Bag in the second Triple Crown race. (Seth Hancock had earlier said that the colts would never meet on the racetrack.) On Monday morning, however, Stephens revealed that a bone chip had been discovered in the Bag's right knee after an examination earlier that day, that he was being retired immediately to stud at Claiborne Farm and that Swale would be racing at Pimlico. It was certainly a convenient time to discover a chip.
Had Devil's Bag's form not improved greatly, he would have faced certain humiliation in the Preakness, while Swale—who not only has the best chance of any horse to win the Preakness, but is also the only horse who can still win the Triple Crown—munched hay in the barn. That would have made no sense. So, instead of having Devil's Bag's reputation further damaged in the Preakness, they will give Swale a chance to enhance his. It's an opportunity he has certainly earned. "I think I've got a hell of a chance to win the Triple Crown," Stephens said Monday. "I'm going to let Devil's Bag down a little and send him to Claiborne Saturday morning. He has shown he's a running horse. All he has to do now is have one good crop of horses."
"If it were another horse, you'd take the chip out and run him some more," Seth Hancock said, "but Devil's Bag is too valuable. It's a relief. We all knew what kind of horse he was last year. It was baffling to see him race this year. Now you've got the reason. It leaves you with mixed feelings."
In spite of this bad news, Swale's win was a grand moment for the Hancocks. Seth had bred and owned his first Kentucky Derby winner, just as brother Arthur had done in '82. Bull's widow, Wad-dell, said, "If Bull were here, he'd probably be mad he hadn't won the Derby himself, but he'd also have been proud of both of them.... If you want to give me a compliment, you can just say I'm broodmare of the year, and let it go at that."
"I haven't slept worth a damn for some time," Seth said after the Derby. "I won't sleep tonight. I guess I feel more relieved than anything else."
Pincay seemed relieved, too, that the job he had wanted most to do was done. The only thing troubling him on Saturday was that his wife, Linda, had undergone minor surgery the day before the Derby and wasn't in Louisville to share the time with him. Cindy Shoemaker, Bill's wife, embraced Laffit after the race, and he said, "If only Linda were here; she should be here now." Pincay has ridden in 11 Derbys, and this is the first she'd missed. So Cindy called Linda in California, and Linda said, "I hope you all come back to California on the same plane so you can celebrate together."
From Maple, of course, there was quite a different tune. After all, two months had taken him from Devil's Bag and Swale to At The Threshold. "I feel a lot bad," Maple said in the jocks' room after the Derby.
And Stephens? Well, there he was, fresh out of the hospital and lingering in the winner's circle, holding Swale's reins and patting him. It was quite a picture. For a long moment they were all alone, just the two of them.
"Swale is the man!" Stephens said. And he, of course, is the trainer.